It’s tornado season in the Midwest

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By Janny Wilcke

This is the time of the year when cold Arctic air frequently meets warm Gulf air thereby spawning the tornados that plague the Midwest. Kentucky gets its share, which concerns me. Growing up in New York, there just weren’t any tornados. The Wizard of Oz afforded the sum total of my knowledge about those swirling winds and I was quite impressed at an early age by their capacity for destruction. Since then, I lived in Kansas long enough to gain serious firsthand knowledge.

When my husband took a job back in Topeka, Kansas, several years after he had graduated from Kansas State and we had gotten married, my first thought was, “We are moving to ‘Tornado Alley!’”  That thought was firm in my brain as we packed our few belongings and drove across the country to our new home. I identified with Dorothy and envisioned myself spiraling over the city and prairies with our little Beagle, landing God-knows-where in a pathetic and rumpled heap. 

As luck would have it, our apartment, actually a former two-car garage that had been partitioned into a bedroom (sans door), “kitchenette,” and a living/dining area, had no basement. And the landlady was forthright – my synonym for “tactless” – about the frequency and likelihood of tornados in the area.

“For some reason tornados tend to set down right up the road from us,” she was quick to volunteer almost immediately after we’d moved in. Swell! Perhaps noticing the blood drain from my face, she went on to assure me that there was a hand-dug tornado shelter behind the house. Sure enough, within a month Mrs. Tactless and I (my stomach heavily protruding with our soon-to-be firstborn) wedged into her damp spider-infested hole in the ground, no easy feat given my condition.

The interesting thing is that our road did indeed seem to be a tornado magnet. A few months later, after the baby’s birth, my husband’s brother and his wife visited from New York. My brother-in-law had just left in our car to run some errands when he heard on the radio that a tornado had been spotted on our road. I looked out the window to see the car suddenly slam into reverse and shoot backwards, cartoon-style, to our apartment. Since the shelter was not large enough for all of us, we squeezed into a tiny bathroom in Mrs. Tactless’ house. We passed the next hour in nervous anticipation, debating spiders, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

When the baby was a month old, we moved from our garage/apartment to a small farm overlooking the prairie southwest of Topeka near Auburn. We now had a basement for shelter and my anxiety level lowered a bit. In the spring, my husband talked me into our first night out alone, so we left our baby in the care of a teenaged neighbor, Tracey, and drove to Topeka to a movie. Afterward, as we headed to a donut shop, we turned on the radio only to hear that nerve-wracking beeping followed by an announcement that a tornado had touched down on Auburn Road near our farm. 

This was long before cell phones, and we frantically searched for a pay phone to alert the babysitter. We tried to be calm, quietly advising Tracey to go to the southwest corner of the basement until we could get home. She nervously agreed, but then stunned us by adding one more question: “Shall I take the baby?”

The moral to the above is twofold. 1) Don’t let tiny children see The Wizard of Oz.  It is a marvelous movie, a classic, but if your little ones are as suggestible as I was, they will at some time in their lives identify with Dorothy whirling to an indeterminate destination, and I assure you this is not a comfortable feeling. For some macabre reason, The Wizard of Oz always seems to air in the spring.

2) Have your babysitter submit to a readiness test before entrusting your infant’s life to them. Anyone who would consider running to a basement for safety with a baby upstairs is not ready (or not playing with a full deck).

So here we are again in tornado season. Since we live in the country, there aren’t sirens to warn us. I don’t know about you, but I have prepared a comfortable nest in my basement where I plan to happily wait out the storms.